Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

By Word of Mouth

Posted by foryourfaith on December 2, 2011

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In the beginning there was no written word. There was only the spoken word, and – as it was later to be recorded in the book of Genesis – God created the universe by speaking words into the void. God’s earliest worshippers their thoughts about God or their experiences of God, but they could speak them, and speak them they did. Long before they invented their own writing system, and even long afterwards, Hebrews told and retold stories, many of which were later to appear in the Bible.

At first, fathers and mothers probably told their children stories about their own parents and grandparents. Abraham himself must have engaged in such storytelling. When he was called by the Lord to leave Ur and move to Canaan, Abraham must have wanted to preserve memories of his old life and to convince his family and new neighbors that the Lord was the one true God and that the many gods being worshipped by the people around them were lifeless idols. Abraham probably repeated stories of how the Lord created the universe and saved Noah and his family from the flood. He must have told of his own calling, repeating God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation. Later, his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, would have continued the tradition, adding their own stories. When their descendants were forced by famine to move to Egypt, where they later became slaves, they would have had even more reason to preserve their heritage, clinging to their beliefs in order to endure.

The Hebrews were not the only people to pass along stories orally. A number of ancient Babylonian narratives parallel those in the Bible. One such tale, later set down as a poem, the “Enuma Elish,” tells of the creation of heaven and earth, but it also tells of a multitude of battling gods who are eventually subdued and ruled by Marduk, the principal god of Babylon. On the other hand, the creation account of the Hebrews affirms that the one true God created everything and holds all creation in his grasp. This vision of God makes the Hebrews unique in the ancient world.

Storytelling, then was not merely for entertainment. Rather, it was of a way of preserving the culture of the people, of letting them know who they were, how they differed from their neighbors. The stories reminded the Hebrews of what made them special. As time went on, storytelling moved out from the family to larger groups, and professional storytellers became common. Often these storytellers recited their texts at community gatherings or to celebrate special feasts. As they told their stories, they may have embellished them to stimulate the interest of their audiences, but they dared not wander far from the point or alter any essential truths. If they tried, listeners would have objected, as they had heard these recitations often enough to be familiar with their contents, and would not tolerate significant deviations – for it was their faith and culture that was being passed on in these stories.

The oral tradition, as this ancient type of storytelling is now called, continued after the Hebrews were delivered from slavery in Egypt and eventually moved into the land that God had promised them. Stories of Moses and the exodus, the conquest of Canaan and heroic feats in the days of the judges were added to the repertoire. Even though writing was becoming widespread, only bits and pieces of the biblical texts were being written down. In fact, scholars say that none of the books of the bible were written down in their final form until at least the time of King David. But even later, centuries after the last of the books of the Bible had been written, people continued using word of mouth to pass on stories, laws, principles and teachings of all kinds.

Adding to the Story

In order to make a point, storytellers sometimes supplemented their narratives with unrelated stories from other traditions. Some of these stories have survived independently of the Bible. One of them may be the ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers.” In this tale, a woman tries to seduce her brother-in-law. When he rejects her advances, the woman is afraid of what will happen if her husband finds out what she has done. And so, as soon as her husband comes home, she accuses his brother of rape, and the brother is forced to flee for his life. Some scholars say that a Hebrew storyteller may have borrowed this story and adapted it for use in the saga of Joseph, who having been sold into slavery by his brothers, is accused of rape and imprisoned after he refuses the sexual advances of the wife of his master, Potiphar. If a Hebrew storyteller did deliberately incorporated the Egyptian tale into the Joseph narrative, he was not trying to falsify history, as we understand it. He was probably only attempting to illustrate that Joseph was an upright and moral man and that God would take care of him no matter how cruelly he was treated by the outside world. For Genesis goes on to tell how Joseph ultimately rises to power and is able to help his own people in time of famine.

More Than Stories

Stories were not the only type of material passed on by storytellers. There were also proverbs, prayers, lyric poems, songs, laws and even riddles (such as Samson’s riddle in Judges 14:14) and etiologies – stories that explain how some person or place was named, or how so many languages came into the world.

 

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